The Buffalo News

BORN SPACEY

Kevin Spacey continues to push the boundaries of Hollywood stardom with a self-directed biopic and big-band nightclub tour By JEFF SIMON Arts Editor 12/19/2004

Not every great actor was born to perform.

And not every born performer can be a great actor.

And then there are those like Kevin Spacey, who is clearly both. It is part of the Spacey legend, in fact, that, as a kid, his inveterate cutting up – along with a little bad attitude – got him thrown out of military school.

“I was the kid in the back of the class who did funny voices,” he says now in a telephone interview, “and realized it was a way to make people laugh. It was always something that came naturally to me. Later on, I did stand-up comedy where impressions were the thing I did in my act.”

To prove the point, he asks rhetorically: “Who does an impression of William Hurt? I love doing William Hurt. I’ll answer my next question as William Hurt.”

Which he does, thoroughly non-rhetorically and for an audience of exactly one on the other end of the telephone.

I guffaw like a donkey, just as, no doubt, the kids did back in military school. Kevin Spacey’s William Hurt is devastatingly dead-on. He sounds like a man with a migraine headache who can’t find any Excedrin but who keeps talking anyway and emphasizing every other word as a kind of aristocratic noblesse oblige.

William Hurt, in other words.

For all time.

“I love doing William Hurt, because everything is painful. . . . It’s really kind of remarkable how many actors do a Christopher Walken impression. (Laughs.) It’s sort of an industry all its own. It has a huge amount to do with how much we admire people. I admire the people I do impressions of. It’s really fun to do.”

Clearly.

What he does as Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea” goes light years beyond doing an impression. The movie – which opened Friday in New York and opens locally Dec. 29 – combines all previous known Kevin Spaceys into one mildly mind-boggling magnum opus: the natural-born performer, the actor, the film director, the product hustler, the self-publicist and the singer to boot. He is even, as we speak, on a nightclub tour with a big band doing his version of Bobby Darin songs. His soundtrack disc of Darin songs is selling like the proverbial flapjacks.

In fact, if you ask Spacey point blank which is more sheerly pleasurable – singing in front of a big band on tour or appearing onstage in a huge meaty part in Shakespeare or O’Neill (which he has also done), he answers without hesitation: “As far as I’m concerned, singing with a big band. . . . It’s very difficult when you’re doing a character in a play. You don’t know the kind of interaction with an audience that you have when there’s nothing between you and them but a microphone.

“As I’ve been going across the country doing these club dates now, I can’t tell you what fun it is to have the improvisational banter that happens between you and an audience. You’re reacting to what they’re doing. You’re looking into their eyes. You’re singing. Each song is a story. So you’re still a storyteller. But the demands of doing a 90-minute show, when you’re doing 20 numbers, are so much different than when you’re on a film set and you’re singing in front of a crowd of actors. You can do another take. You get to do another angle. . . . (On a club stage), it’s a level of adrenaline and sheer pleasure that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced as a performer before.”

To repeat the obvious, then: a natural-born performer – like another old Juilliard student, Robin Williams.

And, in that one sense, not unlike Bobby Darin.

So much so that in a telephone interview, his irrepressible performing instincts trump a mild but self-evident case of control addiction. In other words, he would clearly like to steer an interviewer’s questions, but he just can’t stop himself from answering them all arrestingly, no matter where the answer leads him.

But as an actor, rather than a performer, Kevin Spacey is a two-time Oscar winner: once for Best Actor in “American Beauty,” once for Supporting Actor in “The Usual Suspects.” He’s so good that he is now leading England’s Old Vic Theater.

No matter what you think about “Beyond the Sea” (it has its flaws as a movie, and they’re deep), it’s virtually impossible not to admire the bejabbers out of Spacey’s commitment to “Beyond the Sea.”

Directing and acting in a biopic and sweating the details of independent financing and even making a disc of the music, aren’t unthinkably rare. But to then go on tour with a band in that music – if you’re a double Oscar-winning actor – and to break a previous habit of downright parsimony with the press? That comes wonderfully close to obsession.

That’s what his Bobby Darin movie seems to be, no matter how Kevin Spacey explains it.

Here, then, is a long conversation with the gifted performer who has clearly set the 2004 record for greatest personal investment in a film. (Even Christian Bale’s 63-pound weight loss in “The Machinist” doesn’t match it.)

You’ve sometimes had a hard time from critics, sometimes unfairly. Some of us, for instance, think “The Shipping News” was a terribly underrated little movie. Do you follow what critics think of your movies?

Fairly or not, you certainly get a sense – I’ve certainly had a sense with the movies I’ve done since “American Beauty” – that there has been a kind of negative, almost “How dare you try to play these kind of parts’ (tone). And I think I can appreciate more than I ever did the dilemma that Bobby Darin faced – and that I face and other artists and actors face – which is the conflict between professional expectation and personal freedom.

Because we live in a celebrity culture, the actor (in a film) is often the one who takes the biggest hit. . . . If “Beyond the Sea” works, it’s because of the collaboration and the vast talents of a whole number of people; if it doesn’t work, then there’s nobody to blame but me. I’d rather have that, because then I AM responsible. That I can live with. …

. . . We live in a culture where people tend to write negatively more than they do positively. I think journalism in general thinks it’s more interesting to write a negative story about conflict and about failure than it is to write stories about successful things and things that are positive. I just happen to think that’s the culture we’re living in.

The truth is, I kind of predicted what would happen in my film work back in 1999. I remember sitting around at a dinner with my team, who’ve been working with me for years and years – my manager, my agent, some of my best friends and my family. Here we were at the peak of “American Beauty” having done so remarkably well. And I said: “Guys, I know it looks like a gravy train from here on out, but the fact of the matter is, I think the bar has been set so high with this film . . I have a feeling that everything I do in a film for a while is just not going to measure up.” I also had done a whole series of movies where there was a feeling that I had, in some way, a “golden touch” – films that I think will stick around for a long time, even films that didn’t make money like “Glengarry Glen Ross.” How can anyone call that movie unsuccessful just because it only made $10 million?

The question no one can quite get around is, “Why Bobby Darin?” Believe me, I like Bobby Darin, but you’ve invested so much in this thing – what IS it about Bobby Darin that could possibly mean so much to you? And when did you know it?

It really comes down to one answer: If Bobby Darin had died at the age of 24, after “Mack the Knife,” he’d be James Dean. But he didn’t. He lived. He lived to 37. And he lived to have gone through a lot of emotional changes and professional changes where he continued to try new things, some of which the critics and audiences rejected. All of that has to do with his legacy not being as strong today as others of that genre and that era who are really icons and legends. . .

I’ve tried to make a movie where it doesn’t matter whether you know who Bobby Darin is or not when you come in and see the film. You don’t have to pass a litmus test of factual information. . . . He was one of the greatest performers we ever had.

It all started, frankly, with my mother. My mother was a huge Bobby Darin fan, so I grew up in a house where Bobby Darin records were playing all the time – and Sinatra and the Big Bands. There’s no question we’re influenced by our upbringing and what we’re surrounded by. By the time I was 15, I was pretty convinced that Bobby Darin was the coolest cat that ever walked the face of the earth. …

I love music. I love musicals. I want to do them. When I was 13 until I was 22, I did musicals almost exclusively. Really in my heart, I’m a song and dance man. And I’m loving it.

Because I’ve been talking about this particular movie since I was in my 20s, that this particular movie took on a resonance and an importance for my mother and for myself that was different than almost anything else. . . . It went into a 15-year gestation period, which I had nothing to do with. I only got the rights in the year 2000, and it became a whole new ballgame.

I’m old enough to have lived with Bobby Darin’s career from (his first hit) “Splish Splash” on. There was a side to him that was much darker and funkier, according to a lot of people. He wasn’t just arrogant, he was often considered worse. And he was considered to be a bit of a fledgling womanizer in the Sinatra way. Did you ever consider making the film any darker?

No. You have to separate myth from fact. It is true that Bobby was arrogant. And it is true that he could be a (jerk). … I think the reality is – and what a lot of people didn’t know – is that this was a guy who knew he was living on borrowed time. (He died of heart disease at 37.)

He’d been raised to always tell the truth. I mean if you weren’t doing your best job, he … told you. And if HE wasn’t doing his best job, he knew it. I think he probably put more pressure and demands on himself than he put on anybody else.

With respect to the womanizing, it’s very interesting. Yeah, he was a ladies’ man before he married Sandra Dee. And he was a ladies’ man after they got divorced. But I have never found a single piece of evidence from anybody I ever spoke to – I’ve spoken to almost everybody that was close to Bobby – that he ever cheated on Sandy. When I started out, I said: “I’m not interested in making a plodding, dark biopic. I’m interested in making a celebration of an entertainer in the most entertaining and uplifting way that I can.” I don’t shy away from the fact that he can be difficult and he can be arrogant.

You seem to be a supremely confident man to me, whether you are or not. Was there ever a time with “Beyond the Sea” where you thought, “My God, maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here”?

Oh yeah, there were a number of times in the whole process. When I started working on the music back in 1999, I started working with Roger Kellaway, one of Bobby’s music directors. Roger’s now leading the band I’m going on tour with. There were times when I thought, “Christ, am I ever going to be able to get my voice to this place?”

There were numbers of Bobby’s that were very difficult to do. There were numbers of Bobby’s I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, like “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

I’m hugely challenged by things that daunt me. And things that I think I can’t do. I’m even more challenged when I hear people say, “Oh, he can’t do that,” or, “He shouldn’t do that.” Or, “Who does he think he is?”

That’s all you have to say to me to get me to rise to the challenge.